Balaji Sridhar has always liked science, but it was his father’s bad knees that were the impetus for him to study both chemical engineering and medicine.
His father once was a good squash player, but had to give up playing when the cartilage in his knees wore out. With the dual graduate degrees, Sridhar hopes to someday be able to help people like his father who struggle with debilitating joint pain and reduced mobility due to damaged cartilage.
A Denver native, Sridhar got an undergraduate degree in chemical and biological engineering from MIT. He returned to Colorado to get graduate degrees: an MD from the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a PhD in chemical engineering from CU-Boulder. After completing two years of medical school, Sridhar is taking time off to get the engineering degree, after which he’ll finish medical school.
“The great thing about being at CU is that you get so many opportunities,” he said. “There’s great faculty here and the level of research and the passion for learning are quite high.”
Sridhar is currently working on a cartilage regeneration project in the lab of Distinguished Professor Kristi Anseth, a recognized pioneer in the development of biomaterial scaffolds used for tissue engineering. The research is being conducted in the Jennie Smoly Caruthers Biotechnology Building, a state-of-the-art research and teaching facility at CU-Boulder.
Sridhar’s research focus involves placing cartilage stem cells into a biodegradable polymer gel (contact lenses are a type of polymer) that will be implanted into human joints to regenerate cartilage.
“This would tailor in with my aspirations to become an orthopedic surgeon,” he said. “My dream is to generate this implant and while it’s being approved I’d be going through the residency process. When I get out the other side I could put the implant in the patient.”
Undergraduates have the opportunity to work in the lab alongside graduate students in a collaborative learning environment. Under Sridhar’s supervision, undergraduates are learning about this rapidly growing area in biomedical engineering while getting hands-on lab experience.
“Undergraduates are an integral part of the research,” said Sridhar. “Graduate students learn by teaching undergraduates and it all helps advance the research.”
In early September, Sridhar went on a medical mission with a group of physicians to a rural part of Kenya where there is limited access to medical services. In addition to helping doctors provide medical care, he wanted to learn more about the area’s tropical diseases in order to apply another use for polymers—maintaining vaccine quality.
Sridhar cofounded a start-up company called Nanoly to develop a polymer that stabilizes and protects temperature-sensitive vaccines from degradation. Millions of children die from preventable diseases due to a lack of adequate vaccine refrigeration. This technology will be particularly beneficial in Third World countries where refrigerated transportation is prohibitively expensive.
“Doing this kind of research is what gets me up in the morning,” said Sridhar.
PhD/MD graduate student Balaji Sridhar explains a lab experiment to Jhenya Nahreini, a senior in chemical and biological engineering.